10 October World Mental Health Day
Hi, I'm Richard. I’m 48, and the father of three kids. I live in Wimbledon and I enjoy cycling, walking on Wimbledon Common, cooking and sports.
I’ve got a house in France which is a little cottage, a haven, in the middle of nowhere where I like spending lots of time because it’s peaceful and I can do various building projects. When I was ill, it was a place I went to and stayed for quite a long time to feel safe but also to get involved in things that were practical as opposed to demanding mentally. This very much helped me to recover.
I spent a fair amount of time in France writing my book This Too Will Pass, which is a memoire of my illness and recovery and will be published in November 2018. When I was ill, I was keeping a diary, so the book leans a lot on that.
I was an employment lawyer and a partner in a global firm called James Day and then more recently in a London-based firm called Speechly Bircham, where I ran the employment team and sat on the management committee. In my work, I’d been seeing an increasing number of clients coming to me who were looking for legal advice about their workplace situation. I’d listen to them and think, ‘yes I can certainly help you with your employment position, but it seems to me that you’re not very well. It doesn’t feel to me like you’re in a good place.’ And so I got used to recognising the overlap between the workplace and mental health issues and encouraging people to go and seek help, if they felt comfortable doing so.
What I didn’t see was what was happening to me. Apparently out of the blue - although looking back of course it wasn’t - I was coming home from holiday with the family from France in the May half term holiday in 2011, and we were driving round the south of Paris. I had a sudden panic attack and felt the overwhelming urge to stop the car and get out in lots of moving traffic. I tried to get into the passenger seat but I couldn’t because I was too panicked. So, I started walking across lots of lanes of traffic until finally I was close to a toll booth gate and somebody stopped me and said, ‘what are you doing?’ and my reply was something along the lines of, ‘I don’t know’.
They eventually closed some of the lanes to get me off the road and I was taken to hospital in France for tests on my heart because they were worried that I might have had a heart attack. But it wasn’t that.
So, we came back to England and by the next day I was diagnosed by my GP as having anxiety issues which quickly led to a diagnosis from a psychiatrist as panic attacks, anxiety and depression.
There were definitely warning signs that I didn’t notice. We don’t spend enough time really reflecting on how we are. I spent a lot of time feeling stressed, feeling anxious. I worked at a fast rate, I would have been snappy with my wife and the kids. I worked long hours. I didn’t spend time doing things that I enjoyed. I’d always had since I was young, funny moments where I felt overwhelmed in the moment and I had always associated those with being tired and so I learnt to take myself to bed if I had one of those episodes.
In the immediate week or two before my breakdown, I’d had a lot of those experiences but I’d just put them down to being tired. If I look back, I think I’d been in a state of panic for a good year or two but at the time just thinking, ‘that’s life, I’ve got a big job, I’ve got responsibilities, I’ve got this, I’ve got that. It just goes with territory’.
From then, I spent two years off work, gradually recovering with medication and therapy but also spending time in France and also doing some learning. I did two courses in psychotherapy and counselling, partly as a way of re-engaging with the world and making commitments that I had to meet. And partly to try and understand more of what had happened to me, and to develop more self-awareness. I realised that going back to work couldn’t mean going back to the firm, so I needed to leave.
My employer was great at the time. My senior partner, who I know very well, was very kind and kept in touch and made sure that he was my primary source of contact whilst I was off. The HR team immediately got into action, organising appointments with occupational health and with a psychiatrist, sorting the private medical insurance arrangements. They were great. Interestingly, what they didn’t know was what to tell people. So, for a long time they just told people that I was ill without actually saying why. I can understand why they did that but it did mean that there were friends, colleagues and clients who were fearing the worst.
I would absolutely advocate being clear about the reason because that’s the way we break down stigma.
Work can be a source of stress and it can also be a massive benefit in terms of having a connection, a sense of purpose and achievement. Whilst there was pressure at work, there were pressures elsewhere as well. So I think if I was to look for a cause, it’s not work or home but rather my response to it all. And my in-built assumptions and beliefs that meant that I always had to say yes, that I always had to do the best job that I possibly could, that I had to make everyone around me pleased with me otherwise I would feel threatened.
Being a bloke and being emotionally illiterate very much contributed. I didn’t feel able to admit that I was struggling. I remember having times when I would be walking across a bridge in London thinking, ‘you know what? You could just jump off here and that would be it’. I thought that was normal, that people just feel like that from time to time. I didn’t realise that it was sign that I needed to talk to somebody.
I spend a lot of my time now doing training around mental health awareness. I spend a lot of time with organisations, raising awareness and helping people understand what mental health is all about, trying to reduce the stigma, help managers recognise warning signs, start conversations etc.
Generally, I’m feeling good now. I’m much more aware of how I am. I’ve had periods where I’m off medication. I’m currently on medication but I’m probably going to come off it shortly. Some of last year I had quite a lot of stuff going on personally which was creating a lot of anxiety and affecting my sleep. And so I got into a bit of a state but I recognised it, got myself to the doctors, got some help. I’m better able to manage it. And work allows a greater flexibility, it’s also more clearly purposeful.
Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create cultures and workplaces where it’s ok to talk about this stuff. In order to have a conversation, you need to have permission, you need to know what you are talking about and you need to have the language. The organisation can demonstrate the permission by getting on board and launching initiatives. What we do a lot of is providing the information and the language.
It starts with understanding one’s self and understanding what mental illness means to you personally.
Richard’s book, This Too Will Pass is out on 8 November 2018. You can pre-order it herehttp://www.triggerpublishing.com/product/this-too-will-pass-anxiety-in-a-professional-worldpre-order-now/.